Well it seems that my love of Sichuan cuisine has earned me a few new friends, who I met for dinner last week. Mel and I first connected over our mutual appreciation of Fuschia Dunlop's travelogue and cookbooks. While searching her blog for the proper brand of chile bean paste, I stumbled on Mel's comments, which proved extremely helpful. Soon, Mel, who is also a lawyer, started reading and commented on my Sichuan posts. Since we clearly shared interests in Law and Food (perfectly natural), I ended up contacting him. Turns out, Mel and his partner Diane had just returned from Chengdu, where they had spent two weeks taking classes at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.
From Mel and Diane's Trip to a Chengdu Market
Mel is a retired chemistry professor who switched careers, ending up as a patent attorney. Diane has a great story too-- she ran her family's bottled water business before "retiring" in 2008. Now she advises small business owners while indulging her passion for travel. It was clear that a Sichuan meal was necessary, so after work last week, I met Mel and Diane in Midtown for the drive out to Flushing.
We exchanged out life stories while weaving through the dense Midtown rush-hour traffic, making it across the 59th Street bridge and into Queens, stopping at Carmel, a Middle Eastern specialty store in Forest Hills. As Mel and Diane filled up a basket of nuts, dried fruits, olives and coffee, I leered at plates of golden bureks. I ultimately ended up buying a cheese burek and a spinach and cheese burek (the spinach proved to be the winner for lunch the next day). I also filled up a container of olives and pickles that would have cost twice as much in Manhattan at half the quality. We packed up the car before moving on to our next stop.
Among the numerous options for Sichuan in Flushing, my failure to try Little Pepper has been a glaring omission. Luckily, it's Mel and Diane's favorite Sichuan restaurant in the area, so it was the obvious choice. While eating complementary pickles and peanuts, we searched the menu for some different dishes, opting for a spicy soft tofu dish with peanuts and ya cai, cauliflower with smoked pork, pork with wood ear mushrooms and cumin lamb (their favorite). Diane insisted to the waiter that our order be "hen la" (translation: really hot).
The cumin lamb and soft tofu dishes were standouts. The lamb was appropriately spicy (it could have been spicier, but that would have overwhelmed the cumin flavor), slightly crispy and streaked with red oil. The soft tofu was probably the best thing I ate the whole night. The bowl was filled with soft tofu and topped with chile oil, peanuts, ya cai and cilantro. As you can tell from the ingredients, the dish balanced flavor and texture with the combination of crunchy peanuts and soft tofu. The ya cai provided a nice salty kick at the end, especially against the herbiness of the cilantro. I'll definitely be making this at home.
The cauliflower with bacon was a nice vegetable side, vinegary and rich. It was good, but not spectacular. The pork with wood ear mushrooms was mildly flavored-- a little boring-- but I enjoyed the texture of the wood ears.
Throughout the meal, though we talked a little bit about law, I mostly wanted to know about Mel and Diane's extensive travels (I'm really jealous). I peppered them with questions about Chengdu and Sichuan food. Although they had told me about cooking at the Institute, what I did not know was that they had organized everything themselves, set up a website and found five other devotees of Sichuan cuisine to join them. Now, they plan on organizing two trips a year to the Institute in order to give others inspired by Fuschia Dunlop's books the trip of a lifetime.
Fish Fragrant Eggplant
Diane and Mel clearly learned a lot from their first trip, and they plan to adjust the program accordingly. While I added my own suggestions, it seemed like they had already incorporated much of what I would want to learn about. Their next trip is this October, followed by another in March. Though they attended the school in downtown Chengdu, apparently the Institute has moved to a brand-spanking new compound outside of town, so people on the trip will get to experience Sichuan cooking in a state-of-the-art environment.
This is the type of trip I've always wanted to take. If everything works out, I will almost certainly be standing in chef's whites, gawking at the shi fu (cooking master) demonstrating dishes in the near future. At the same time, it's comforting to know that passionate, smart and fun people like Mel and Diane are in charge. You could not ask for better hosts.
If you are interested, please check out Diane's site, http://www.cookingschoolinchina.com/, which has everything you could ever want to know about a culinary trip to Chengdu and China. Then, if you end up enrolling, be sure to say you were referred by Law & Food, since we've gotta eat, and Mel and Diane have promised us more Chinese banquets in the future (serving Sichuan food, of course).
UPDATE: Mel and Diane had told me that Fuschia Dunlop herself might help plan the cooking curriculum, but nothing was settled when I posted. Well, it looks like she's in.
13343 Roosevelt Ave